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Art Review: BP Portrait Award 2013

18/08/2013 20:27 BST | Updated 18/10/2013 10:12 BST

The Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery London is in its thirty-fourth year, and twenty-fourth year of generous sponsorship by BP, hence the title 'BP Portrait Award'. Fifty-five of the most outstanding entries, including the winning portraits, from this international competition are currently on exhibit from 20 June 2013 to 15 September 2013. During the judging process, none of the entries received from seventy-seven countries were tagged with the artists' nationality as a measure of equality, and this ethic is also evident in the exhibit. The exhibition offers free admission.

In the works on display, the art of portrait painting stands out as enduringly-defined and honed as the sharply exploited oil or acrylic paints that capture every fragment of people's faces, bodies and postures through unflinching detail. What is very engaging about this exhibit is that each of the works is associated with a story personal to the artist or to the subject.

Further, each work makes a statement: bold, modest, sentimental or philosophical, all of which invite reflective-thinking, and facilitate the viewer into developing empathy for the artist as well as for the subject. Empathy, acceptance of the self and other, admiration and celebration are just some of the feelings one can experience when looking at these works. These works will also make us re-consider our views of others and ourselves in general. Some of the notable portraits are as follows.

The opening portrait of this exhibition, titled 'Zuzana in London', shows an incomprehensible skill where most visitors are driven to question not once but several times if this is a painting or a photograph from an extremely high quality camera; it is the former. Artist Hynek Martinec (b. 1980) shakes the viewers' beliefs of how very life-like an acrylic-on-canvas painting can be, when executed with flawless proficiency; it is certainly one of the many masterpieces in this exhibit. This is his fourth portrait of his girlfriend Zuzana, and it underlines an important message: 'No longer looking through rose-tinted glasses, Zuzana looks at reality without illusion'.

Artist Lionel Smit (b. 1982) has painted a very emotional but brave story of a waitress from a township café that he frequently visits, in order to capture the 'essence of her life - including the long distances she travels to work and her struggles as a single mother'. The portrait features a girl looking outward, as if knowing what lies ahead, with the burden, responsibilities and struggles to come. The use of different hues of blue, black and grey around her face not only capture the buzz and chaos all around her, they also enable the subject's character and modest-fortitude to stand out as admirable. The painting technique is oil on Belgian linen.

When one can look into the mirror and wisely observe oneself with all our imperfections, it will be the turning point when imperfection will begin to be beautiful and become a subject of artistic ambitions. One will have to be really afraid of words if Ian Cumberland's self-portrait on 2000 x 1400mm is not labelled as a masterpiece. With the advent and increase of "selfies" in the current decade, and when compared to the other self-portraits in this exhibit, how can one not call Cumberland's unyieldingly-painted self-portrait as a masterpiece, which viewers can be seen flocking around for several minutes at a stretch staring at the artist's face? Through the meticulously painted hair and red-stretches on his skin, combined with ordinarily looking eyes, Cumberland (b. 1983) invites us to see the dignity and acceptance with which he adores himself. His work equally invites us to view ourselves with the same perspective. The painting technique is oil on linen.

Our faces, skin, expressions, posture and eyes, all embody our characters and our inner selves from moment to moment, whether we realise or not. We have characteristics, thoughts, emotions, fears, joys, sorrows, ambitions and hopes that are very private to all of us; these constitute our individuality. However, our individual inner-selves, as much as they reveal themselves in our appearance or behaviour, also conceal sides of us that are very special and prized to us.

This is what the winning portrait called 'Pieter' by Susanne du Toit (b. 1955) of her eldest son Pieter embodies, as the artist writes, 'I look to the body to provide as much expression as the face'. The portrait features a young man sat on a chair with his hands crossed over the right knee; he is looking outwards in a direction that only he understands. The moveable stillness with which the subject's face looks outwards, his crossed hands and legs, all reveal the state of being together with oneself. What one can identify with this portrait is that although this state of being completely together is something we experience from time to time, it is not entirely still because our lives and experiences are constantly moving. There are more engaging portraits at this exhibition that invite careful observation and thinking.